London – Educational

Tuesday night I returned from a six day excursion to London with my students from last semester. The objective of the trip was primarily the British Museum, but also the British Library. We were there looking at artifacts and manuscripts relating to the history of the Ancient Near East, the stories and history recounted in the Bible, and text editions of the Bible. This was my third trip to London, so most of this was familiar to me (this was also the reason that I was the one organizing the trip).  I thought that I would put some of my pictures up here with some explanations for anyone who is curious about the kind of work I do. Please bear in mind that this is a very small sample of both the photos that I have and of the material in the museum. I had to be picky in the consideration that someone might actually read this. First, I would like to thank the trustees of the British Museum for allowing me the opportunity to photograph these items. For understandable reasons, photography is not allowed in the British Library, so I have no photos to put here of one of the highlights of the trip. Without further ado…

I’ll start with Egypt, since this seems to be most fascinating and well known for most people. Personally, I prefer the Mesopotamian materials, but that is only my preference. I don’t have that many pictures of Egyptian material, but what I have, I’ll post.

Ramses II of Egypt (r. ~1279-1212)

This is part of a huge statue of Ramses II. How do we know that this is supposed to be Ramses II and not someone else, you ask? Well, they were nice enough to note this information about him on the back:


Why is this so fascinating for people interested in the Bible? Ramses II has been suggested as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, should any such event have occurred (many modern scholars seriously question the historical reliability of the biblical image of the Exodus). This identification is based on the note in Exodus 1:8-11 that the new Pharaoh forced the Israelites to build the cities of Pithom and Raamses. Also by combining the internal biblical chronology (cf. 1 Kings 6:1) with absolutely datable events (solar-eclipses noted in Assyrian records) one arrives at a time about the time of Ramses II, give or take a century.

This is another image of Ramses II, which presents him as the king of both Upper and Lower Egypt (note the tall crown and the serpentine crown, as well as the crook and flail).

That’s really all I wanted to present from Egypt. Let’s move on to Mesopotamia…

Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic

One of the most famous epics of the ancient world (way before Homer) was the Epic of Gilgamesh. The most famous version of this comes from the library of Ashurbanipal (r. ~669-627), the last great king of the Assyrian Empire (you know, the people who conquered Samaria and sent Israel [not Judah!] into exile) and was written on 12 tablets. This is all interesting Jonathan, but what’s the point of you telling me this? Well, on this tablet, which was translated at the end of the 19th century, the reader is confronted with an interesting story told to Gilgamesh (who is seeking immortality after the death of ally and friend Enkidu) by an immortal man named Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells him that he became immortal by outliving the flood that the gods sent to destroy mankind from the earth. This may sound familiar to many of you, for example if you consider Genesis 6-8. There are quite a few more similarities between these two stories, but I don’t really want to take the time to enumerate them all here. Most good translations into English will list them for you, if you take a minute to pick one up (and you should, since it is one of the great literary works of human history and tries to keep your attention by using phrases like “and the mated for 6 days and 7 nights”). Since the flood recounted by Utnapishtim was a one time occurrence, there is no way for Gilgamesh to earn immortality that way. Utnapishtim eventually tells him about a plant at the bottom of the sea that can restore him to youth and provide him with immortality. After Gilgamesh retrieves this plant and plans on using it, he is thwarted by a crafty snake who comes and steals the plant, losing its skin (an etiology of serpentine rejuvenation via shedding skin), and thus destroys Gilgamesh’s hopes of becoming immortal. This may ring some bells too, if you consider Genesis 2:9 and all of Genesis 3. One at least finds similar literary motifs here, if nothing else. I’ll leave any decisions about that to the reader.


So, take the story above about Utnapishtim and replace his name with Atramhasis and you arrive at this much older flood story. Well, that is an oversimplification, but you get the idea. The gods create humanity to be their slaves; they then deem them to be too loud, deciding to wipe them out by sending a flood. Atramhasis escapes with the help of a god who advises him about these plans secretly. The gods are eventually thankful that he survived though, since they realize without human sacrifice they have nothing to eat and must suffer hunger pangs. Rather than wipe out humanity in one fell swoop again, they decide to release various plagues on humanity at various irregular intervals. Nice.

The Black Obelisk

The large black stone in the middle is the so-called Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (r. ~859-824). It describes a series of military campaigns throughout his reign. These are only interesting to us peripherally, as they help us reconstruct a larger context for the history described in the Book of Kings. One of them is also mentioned in the text of the so-called Kurkh Monolith Inscription of Shalmaneser III (which is largely obscured by the Black Obelisk in the photo); the Monolith Inscription mentions Ahab of Israel in the text as being a member of a military coalition with Aram – this being the earliest mention of Israelite king found outside of the Bible to date. The Black Obelisk mentions this coalition several more times (although Ahab is never mentioned in it). This image leaves the reader with a bit of a question mark. Ahab and Aram as allies? What about 1 Kings 20 and 22? Well, there are a number of possibilities for addressing these issues, but I’d rather not go through all of them right now. Let’s zoom in a bit closer for a tight shot of one of the images on the Black Obelisk.


Jehu of Israel

The text above this image suggests that this kneeling man is either Jehu of Israel or his envoy to Shalmaneser III. The larger image shows him bowing before the Assyrian monarch and the symbols of two of Assyria’s gods, namely Ashur and Ishtar. The text identifies Jehu as the son of Omri. This raises several questions again. Was Jehu really the son of Omri? The Bible recounts him wiping out the family of Omri (more specifically Ahab), cf. 2 Kings 9-10, and names his as the son of Jehoshaphat son of Nimshi. The biblical text also does not mention this tribute. For that matter, Shalmaneser III never appears in the text of the Hebrew Bible (The only Shalmaneser who does show up is Shalmaneser V in 2 Kings 17). At any rate this is possibly the only image of an Israelite king discovered to date and is also as of yet the only (potential) image of a biblical personage from the Ancient Near East. Fascinating.

Sennacherib besieges Lachish

This image of Sennacherib of Assyria presides over a series of reliefs demonstrating the Assyrian victory over the Judean city. This event is referenced in 2 Chronicles 32:9 and took place during the reign of Hezekiah of Judah in 701. Neither the Bible nor the Assyrian records shed further light on the ultimate fate of the city of Lachish, so it is unclear exactly what happened. This series of reliefs shows him accepting tribute from some, deporting some, and having some thrown down the side of the mountains. When the city of Nineveh was destroyed and the palace was sacked in 612, someone attacked the relief and defaced Sennacherib (quite literally, as you can see). The cut in his face looks just about right to have come from an axe.

Let’s consider some of the artifacts from Palestine:

Ivories from Samaria

The ivories appear to be of Phoenician provenance (there are similar examples from Egypt and also from Mesopotamia, suggesting that they came there from the Phoenician traders) but were found in Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom Israel from the time of Omri until its collapse in 722. The two bottom left pieces are remains of a sphinx and the center piece is some kind of palm tree. The supposedly were found in the “palace” of Samaria, suggesting that they might be the property of kings. This may sound familiar to some of you who read very closely. Take a look at 1 Kings 22:39 NRSV and Amos 3:15 (there is no evidence that these were part of an “ivory house”) and also at Amos 6:4, which suggests that the nobility of Israel was in possession of ivory furniture, something for which they were condemned by the socially-conscience prophet. These pieces date to about the eighth century, suggesting that they were more likely from the time of Jeroboam II than from the time of Ahab. This implies that they might be relics of the luxury that Amos condemned. No they’re on display in London.

The Lachish Ostraka

Recycling was also a fact of life in the ancient world. Since paper didn’t exist and papyrus and parchment were expensive, people wrote letters on junk, like these broken pieces of pottery (these are referred to as ostraka, ostrakon in the singular, and can be found all over the ancient world). These particular examples were found in the remains of Lachish within the gate complex. They are a group of letters describing the stressful situation during the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar II in 587/6. Beyond that glimpse into the history of Judah, they provide us with something much more tantalizing, namely a look at pre-Masoretic Hebrew grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. These elements of the language are conspicuously similar to the Hebrew that we find in the bible, should one remove all of the Masoretic vocalizations and accents. This makes these pieces especially interesting for philological reasons. That rules.

The Cyrus Cylinder

So this one isn’t from Palestine, but everyone needs to have seen this at some point. Babylon was conquered in 539 by Cyrus of Persia, who was viewed as a liberator by most people (cf. Isaiah 45, which records Cyrus as the Messiah of God!) including some important elements of the Babylonian society, most specifically the priests of Marduk. The last king of Babylon was a man named Nabonid who turned attention away from the all important Marduk religion of Babylon and focused on the moon-god Sin. Much of the time of his reign he spent outside of Babylon, meaning that the Marduk priests couldn’t even celebrate the important New Year’s Festival. Basically this really hacked them off and they sought someone to put an end to this situation. Cyrus was their man. They invited him in to Babel and he took the city without a battle. To celebrate this success he restored the Marduk cult in Babylon and paid for it himself. It is unclear if he stopped with the Marduk cult. Ezra 1 (Hebrew) and Ezra 6 (Aramaic) record a similar situation for the temple in Jerusalem. Of these 2 texts, Ezra 6 appears to be the earlier text and matches this cuneiform cylinder more than the Hebrew version in Ezra 1. There seems to be a relationship between these texts. Here is what the other side of the cylinder looks like:

The Cyrus Cylinder

The Persians were “liberal” in terms of religious policy as far as we can reconstruct it. It seems that they allowed people to follow their own religion as a means of keeping them in line with their own politics. If people are happy, they are less likely to rebel. They were also the people who introduced taxes in a monetary form, as opposed to just offering a percentage of the yields of the crops. So, taxes and religious relativity…they sound kind of like the Democrats of the ancient world. I kid. Anyway, The image of the Persians has pretty much been consistently influenced in the popular mind by Greeks, who generally attempted to make them look ruthless, gluttonous, and ridiculous (cf. the film 300 – which basically uncritically accepts this image in order to make “white” Europeans look mighty and fair in the face of the fascist Middle-Easterners). Frankly, quite the opposite was true. The Persians let the various groups in their huge empire maintain their own culture and religion as long as it didn’t lead to direct problems with the state. The Greeks on the other hand, after Alexander conquered the Persians, did such fabulous things as forcing Jews to eat pork and putting a statue of Zeus on the altar in Jerusalem. Friendly. Because they were Europeans and we have a generally Eurocentric view of history, these facts are generally just ignored. Oh well.

Well, I hope that someone found this interesting. I loved the trip and I love the British Museum. I could spend weeks there. I look forward to any questions or comments that might arise from this.

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1 Comment

  1. Stephanie

     /  11/06/2009

    That was fascinating and highly eduactional. I must visit more museums with you.steph


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